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The Case for a Pan-American Manufacturing Ecosystem

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As the U.S. economy emerges from Covid-19-related lockdowns and subsequent supply chain disruptions, business leaders are beginning to develop a roadmap for redesigning their global supply chains with the aim of making them more resilient, environmentally sustainable, and agile. This endeavor, combined with the Biden administration’s goal of making critical sectors of the U.S. economy more self-reliant and less dependent on China, will require public-private partnerships and hundreds of billions in government investments, subsidies, incentives, and sourcing mandates.

But the United States can’t achieve these goals alone. They will require it to collaborate and strengthen trading partnerships with countries in North America, Central America, and South America and build a reliable, cost-effective land-based transportation network that connects the three Americas. Only with strong partnerships and a Pan-American transportation network will the United States be able to bring manufacturing home from Asia. This reconfiguration would benefit all involved: Creating jobs and promoting political stability in poor countries in the Americas would also build wealth in these nations and slow migration from them to the United States.

In a slew of sectors, the only way to develop cost-effective manufacturing in the United States is for those factories to be fed by an ecosystem of low-cost suppliers located in Central and South America rather than Asia. Given the long transit times from suppliers in Asia, it’s unrealistic for U.S. factories to depend on them. Nor is it realistic to expect a major chunk of the supply base now in Asia to relocate to the United States. That’s because the United States doesn’t have population needed to support a large-scale factory and logistics infrastructure: The average age of its population is 38.5 — much older than that of the labor force in emerging economies — and more-flexible service-sector options would make it difficult to find the huge amount of workers to consistently fill factory and logistics jobs such as trucking.

Leveraging Mexico’s and Central America Younger Populations

Mexico and countries in Central America do have the population and demographics to support a large-scale manufacturing and logistics sector. Their workforce is much larger and younger — the average age across Central America is 24 to 28. The labor cost of manufacturing in Mexico is now equivalent to that of China, and in parts of Central America, such as Honduras, it is even lower. Millions of poor Central Americans are desperate for legal job opportunities, and local manufacturing work would be welcomed, especially by communities now plagued by drug trafficking and production. The establishment of a robust manufacturing sector in these countries would also provide their governments with the resources to build professional security forces with the capability to root out drug cartels.

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Creating better economic opportunities and reducing crime and corruption would undoubtedly reduce the emigration from those countries to the United States. And a thriving large middle class with spending power would present U.S. companies with a large market close to home.

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Finding Sources of Renewable Water

Another consideration in building a robust manufacturing system that encompasses the Americas is the availability of water — an existing problem that seems certain to grow worse due to global warming. Manufacturing requires large amounts of renewable water, and in many parts of the U.S. West and Southwest, water availability is severely constrained.

Canada and the U.S. Great Lakes region have significantly more water. South American countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and Peru rank among the top water-rich countries in the world. According to the Global Water Partnership (GWP), nearly a third of the world’s renewable water resources are in South America.

In addition to their water resources, many South American countries also have stronger economies than those in Central America, decent infrastructure, and large talent pools (they have high literacy rates and excellent universities). They also are major food exporters and have established companies in a wide range of industries, including autos, steel, chemicals, electronics, pharmaceuticals, apparel and footwear, and appliances. And last but not least, they are also important sources of commodities such as lithium, copper, iron, silver, zinc, tin, lead, manganese, and bauxite.

Constraining China and Russia

A final reason for the United States and its allies in the Americas to build a strong Pan-American manufacturing ecosystem is to constrain the growing economic, political, and military power of China in particular but also Russia. It’s a goal that President Joseph Biden emphasized in the recent G7 Summit, where he called on the world’s richest democracies to offer developing countries an alternative to China’s Belt and Road initiative, which has made major inroads in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East and has large port and road construction projects in the works in Central American countries.

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Russia and China have donated millions of Covid-19 vaccines to countries in South America in a bid to increase influence in these regions and gain preferential mining rights and bids on infrastructure projects. At their summit, the Group of Seven countries pledged to provide one billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines to poor countries over the next year and take other actions to increase supplies.

Modernizing the Pan-American Transportation Network

The existing Pan-American Highway is a 19,000-mile network of roads throughout North, Central and South America. The only major break in it is the Darién Gap, the 100-mile marshy and forested region separating Central and South America. To link major industrial regions across the continents in the near term, the roads would need to be expanded and upgraded, and the Darién Gap would have to be bridged, which new tunneling technologies could help achieve. In the medium to long term, a modern rail transportation network would have to be built. This road and rail network would allow goods to travel seamlessly and swiftly over land across the three Americas without spending weeks on the ocean.

In supply chains, speed translates into cash and flexibility translates into resilience. A regional, “near-shored” supply chain would accelerate movement between industrial hubs across the Americas, substantially reducing transit times from raw material to finished goods to final point of sale by weeks. Less time spent in transit would mean less cash tied up in inventory. Consequently, manufacturers would have reduced working capital requirements and healthier balance sheets.

Making It Happen

Of course, a strategic reset of this magnitude will take time and come with a hefty price tag. The best comparison is the Belt and Road initiative, which China launched in 2013. It is aimed at improving the infrastructure between 70 countries across Asia and Europe and into Africa. The estimated cost of this Chinese-financed mega-project is $8 trillion. The United States is in the best position to lead the Pan-American initiative, but it is highly likely that other countries in the Americas would be willing to help share the costs given the clear economic, political, and social benefits that they would reap. Indeed, the creation of the U.S. Interstate Highway System, which was originally championed by President Eisenhower in the 1950s, provided a huge economic boost and helped turn the United States into a global economic powerhouse.

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In addition to public outlays, other means could be used to help finance the construction of the network. They include the cash flow from usage fees and tolls, offtake contracts or preferential-rights agreements that would obligate users of the transportation system to buy goods from a company or country making the initial investment in the network, and privately financed build-operate-transfer (BOT) projects, where a private party helps pay for infrastructure in return for the right to operate and collect fees from it for a set period.

Admittedly, the current security, political, and infrastructural problems plaguing countries in Central and South America pose enormous near-term challenges in building a Pan-American manufacturing ecosystem. However, industries like apparel and food already operate in these countries, and there is a budding medical-devices-manufacturing sector in Costa Rica. Other companies could apply the lessons that players in those industries have learned about how to build and ship from factories in Central and South America.

It would be up to more-developed countries like the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil to persuade other countries to embrace the vision and join this ambitious endeavor. Most countries in the Americas aspire to work closely with the United States. And given the better future that a robust Pan-American manufacturing ecosystem could provide for their populations, many would undoubtedly be willing to support the infrastructure projects with guarantees and exclusive market-entry agreements and rights.

To remain competitive in the global landscape, the United States and other countries in the Americas need to revamp their economic ties. They should set their sights on designing the supply chain for the next 50 years that can bring prosperity to all of them.

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